Chapter 21 – Reading and Growth of the Mind


We have now completed the task that lay before us at the beginning of this book. We have shown that activity is the essence of good reading, and that the more active reading is, the better it is.

We have defined active reading as the asking of questions, and we have indicated what questions must be aske of any book, and how those questions must be answered in different ways for different kinds of books.

We have identified and discussed the four levels of reading, and shown how these are cumulative, earlier or lower levels being contained in later or higher ones. Consequent upon our stated intention, we have laid more stress upon the later and higher levels of reading than upon the earlier and lower ones, and we have therefore emphasized analytical and syntopical reading. Since analytical reading is probably the most unfamiliar kind for most readers, we have discussed it at greater length than any of the other levels, giving its rules and explaining them in the order in which they must be applied. But almost everything that was said of analytical reading also applies, with certain adaptations that were mentioned in the last chapter, to syntopical reading as well.

We have completed our task, but you may not have completed yours. We do not need to remind you that this is a practical book, nor that the reader of a practical book has a special obligation with respect to it. If, we said, the reader of a practical book accepts the ends it proposes and agrees that the means recommended are appropriate and effective, then he must act in the way proposed. You may not accept the primary aim we have endorsed – namely, that you should be able to read as well as possible – nor the means we have proposed to reach it – namely, the rules of inspectional, analytical, and syntopical reading. (In that case, however, you are not likely to be reading this page.) But if you do accept that aim and agree that the means are appropriate, then you must make the effort to read as you probably have never read before.


If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you. … Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.

A Book that can do no more than amuse or entertain you may be a pleasant diversion for an idle hour, but you must not expect to get anything but amusement from it. We are not against amusement in its own right, but we do want to stress that improvement in reading skill does not accompany it. That same goes for a book that merely informs you of facts that you did not know without adding to your understanding of those facts. Reading for information does not stretch your mind any more than reading for amusement. It may seem as though it does, but that is merely because your mind is fuller of facts than it was before you read the book. However, your mind is essentially in the same condition that it was before. There has been a quantitative change, but no improvement in your skill.

We have already remarked that the great scientific books are in many ways easier to read than non-scientific ones, because of the care with which scientific authors help you to come to terms, identify the key propositions, and state the main arguments. These helps are absent from poetical works, and so in the long run they are quite likely to be the hardest, and most demanding, books that you can read.

The difficulties that we are talking about here are very different from the difficulties that are presented by a bad book. It is hard to read a bad book, too, for it defies your efforts to analyze it, slipping through your fingers whenever you think you have it pinned down. In fact, in the case of a bad book, there is really nothing to pin down. It is not worth the effort of trying. You receive no reward for your struggle.

A good book does reward you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most of all. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second – and this in the long run is much more important – a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths to human life.


The great majority of the several million books that have been written in the Western tradition alone – more than 99 per cent of them – will not make sufficient demands on you for you to improve your skill in reading. … These are the books that can be read only for amusement or information. … In fact, you do not have to read them – analytically – at all. Skimming will do.

There is a second class of books from which you can learn – both how to read and how to live.  … These are the good books, the ones that were carefully wrought by their authors, the ones that convey to the reader significant insights about subjects of enduring interest to human beings. There are in all probably no more than a few thousand such books. … They are worth reading analytically – once. … You know that you will never have to read them again, although you may return to them to check certain points or to refresh your memory of certain ideas or episodes. (It is in the case of such books that the notes you make in the margin or elsewhere in the volume are particularly valuable.)

Of the few thousand such books there is a much smaller number – here the number is probably less than a hundred – that cannot be exhausted by even the very best reading you can manage. How do you recognize this? Again it is rather mysterious, but when you have closed the book after reading it analytically to the best of your ability, and place it back on the shelf you have a sneaking suspicion that there is more than you got. … You find that you cannot forget the book, that you keep thinking about it and your reaction to it. Finally, you return to it. And then a very remarkable thing happens.

If the book belongs to the second class of books to which we referred before, you find, on returning to it that there was less there than you remembered. The reason, of course, is that you yourself have grown in the meantime. Your mind is fuller, your understanding greater. The book has not changed, but you have. Such a return is inevitably disappointing.

But if the book belongs to the highest class – the very small number of inexhaustible books – you discover on returning that the book seems to have grown with you. You see new things in it – whole sets of new things – that you did not see before. Your previous understanding of the book is not invalidated (assuming that you read it well the first time); it is just as true as it ever was, and in the same ways that it was true before. But now it is true in still other ways, too.

Our point is that you should seek out the few books that can have this value for you. The are the books that will teach you the most, both about reading and about life. They are the books to which you will want to return over and over. They are the books that will help you to grow.

Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 4 of 4)


IF you read ths chapter carefully, you will have noticed that, although we spent some time discussing it, we did not really solve what we called the paradox of syntopcial reading. That paradox can be stated thus: Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read. … if you do not know where to start, you cannot read syntopically; and even if you have a rough idea of where to begin, the time required to find the relevant books and relevant passages in those books may exceed the time required to take all of the other steps combined.

Theoretically, you could know the major literature of our tradition so thoroughly that you had a working notion of where every idea is discussed in it. But if you are such a person, you need no help from anybody. … What is needed, therefore, is a reference book that tells you where to go to find the relevant passages on a large number of subjects of interest, without at the same time saying how the passages should be read – without prejudging their meaning or significance. The Syntopicon is an example of such a work. Produced in the 1940’s, it is a topical index to the set of books titled Great Books of the Western World. Under each of some 3,000 topics or subjects, it lists references to pages within the set where that subject is discussed. Some of the references are to passages covering many pages, others are key paragraphs or even parts of paragraphs. No more time is required to find them than is needed to take down the indicated volume and flip through its pages.

The Syntopicon has one major defect, of course. It is an index of just one set of books (albeit a large one), and it gives only a very rough indication of where passages may be found in other books that are not included in the set. Nevertheless, it always provides you with at least a place to start on any syntopical reading project.

It works initiatively by overcoming the initial difficulty that anyone faces when confronted by the classical books of our tradition. These works are a little overpowering. We may wish that we had to read them, but often we do not do so. … A syntopical reading of these major works with the aid of the Syntopicon provides a radically different solution. … It helps us to read in the great books before we have read through them.

Syntopical reading is the great books, with the help of the Syntopicon, may also work suggestively. Starting from the reader’s existing interest in a particular subject, it may arouse or create other interests in related subjects. And once started on an author, it is hard not to explore the context. Before you know it, you have read a good portion of the book.

Finally, syntopical reading with the aid of the Syntopicon works instructively, in three distinct ways. This, in fact, is one of the major benefits of this level of reading.

First, the topic in connection with which the passage is being read serves to give direction to the reader in interpreting the passage. But it does not tell him what the passage means, since the passage may be relevant to the topic in several or many different ways. Hence the reader is called upon to discover precisely what relevance the passage has to the topic. To learn to do this is to acquire a major skill in the art of reading.

Second, the collection of a number of passages on the same topic, but from different works and different authors, serves to sharpen the reader’s interpretation of each passage read.

Third, if syntopical reading is done on a number of different subjects, the fact that the same passage will often be found cited in the Syntopicon under two or more subjects will have its instructive effect. … Such multiple interpretation not only is a basic exercise in the art of reading but also tends to make the mind habitually alert to the many strains of meaning that any rich or complex passage can contain.


As we have seen, there are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is preparatory, and the other is syntopical reading proper. Let us write out all of these steps for review.

  • SURVEYING THE FIELD: Preparatory to Syntopical Reading
  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.

NOTE: These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.

  • SYNTOPICAL READING of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I.
  1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
  3. Establish a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.

    NOTE: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.

Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 3 of 4)


The syntopical reader, in short, tries to look at all sides and to take no sides. … But it is easier to take no sides than to look at all sides. In this latter respect, the syntopical reader will undoubtedly fail. All possible sides of an issue cannot be exhaustively enumerated. Nevertheless, he must try.

Taking no sides is easier than look at all sides, we say, but it remains difficult even so. The syntopical reader must resist certain temptations and know his own mind. … Partiality can intrude in a variety of subtle ways – by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various different answers to key questions are presented.

In order to avoid some of these dangers, the conscientious syntopical reader may resort to one obvious device and use as much as possible. That is, he must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language. Although it may appear to do so, this does not contradict what we said earlier about the necessity of finding a neutral terminology, in which to analyze the problem. That necessity remains, and when summaries of an author’s argument are presented, they must be presented in that language and not the author’s. But the author’s own words, carefully quoted so as not to wrench them out of context, must accompany the summary, so that the reader can judge for himself whether the interpretation of the author is correct.


An example may be helpful to explain how syntopical reading works. Let us consider the idea of progress.

The investigation of this important historical and philosophical idea occupied several years. The first task was to produce a list of works to be examined for relevant passages – to amass a bibliography (it finally ran to more than 450 items). This task was accomplished by a series of inspection readings of several times that many books, articles, and other pieces. … There were obvious places to start; many recent books contain the word “progress” in their titles. But other do not, and most of the older books, although relevant to the subject, do not even employ the term.

A few fictional and poetical works were read, but on the whole it was decided to concentrate on expository works. … Generally speaking, an intensive effort of synthetic interpretation is required before a fictional work can be placed on one side or another of an issue. The effort is so great, and the results essentially so dubious, that usually it is prudent to abstain.

The discussion of progress in the many works that remained to be examined was, as is usually the case, apparently chaotic. Faced with this fact, the task was, as we have indicated, to develop a neutral terminology. This was a complex undertaking, but one example may help to explain what was done.

The word “progress” itself is used by authors in a number of different ways. Most of these different ways reflect no more than shades of meaning, and they can be handled in the analysis. But the word is use by some authors to denote a certain kind of movement forward in history that is not an improvement. Since most of the authors use the word to denote historical change in the human condition that is for the better, and since betterment is the essence of the conception, the same word could not be applied to both views. In this case, the majority gained the day, and the minority faction had to be referred to as authors who assert “non-meliorative advance” in history. The point is that when discussing the views of the minority faction, we could not employ the word “progress,” even though the authors involved had used it themselves.

The third step in sytopical reading is, as we have noted, getting the questions clear. … The first question to ask, the question to which authors can be interpreted as giving various answers, is, Does progress occur in history? Is it a fact that the general course of historical change is the direction of improvement in man’ condition? Basically, there are three different answers to this question put forth in the literature of the subject: (1) Yes, (2) No, and (3) We cannot know.

The multifarious and the interrelated answers to this primary question constitute what we decided to call the general controversy about progress. It is general in the sense that every author we studied who has anything significant to say about the subject takes sides on the various issues that can be identified within it. But there is also a special controversy about progress, which is made up of issues that are joined only be progress authors – authors who assert that progress occurs. These issues have to do with the nature of properties of the progress that they all, being progress authors, assert is a fact of history. There are only three issues here, although the discussion of each of them is complex. They can be stated as questions: (1) Is progress necessary, or is it contingent on other occurrences? (2) Will progress continue indefinitely, or will it eventually come to an end or “plateau out”? (3) Is there progress in human nature as well as in human institutions – in the human animal itself, or merely in the external conditions of human life?

Finally, there is a set of subordinate issues, as we called them, again only among progress authors, about the respects in which progress occurs. We identified six areas in which progress is said by some authors to occur, although other writers deny its occurrence in one or more of these areas – although never in all (since they are by definition authors who assert the occurrence of some kind of progress). The six are: (1) progress in knowledge, (2) technological progress, (3) economic progress, (4) political progress, (5) moral progress, and (6) progress in the fine arts. The discussion of the last point raises special problems, since in our opinion no author genuinely asserts that such aesthetic progress occurs in this respect.

The structure of the analysis of progress just described exemplifies our effort to define the issues within the discussion of this subject and to analyze the discussion itself – in other words, to take the fourth and fifth steps in syntopical reading. And something like this must always be done by a syntopical reader, although of course he does not always have to write a long book reporting his researches.

Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 2 of 4)


We are now prepared to explain how to read syntopically. … There are five steps in syntopical reading. … We will discuss them roughly in the order in which they occur, although in a sense all of them have to take place for any of them to.

STEP 1 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: FINDING THE RELEVANT PASSAGES. In syntopical reading, it is your concerns that are primarily to be served, not the books that you read.

Hence the first step at this level of reading is another inspection of the whole works that you have identified as relevant. Your aim is to find the passages in the books that are most germane to your needs. … you should read the book quickly. You do not want to lose sight of the fact that you are reading it for an ulterior purpose – namely, for the light it may throw on your own problem – not for its own sake.

It might seem that this step could be taken concurrently with the previously described inspection of a book, … In many cases, that is so. But it is unwise to consider that this is always possible. … Therefore, to try to identify the relevant passages at the same time that you identify the relevant books is often perilous. Unless you are very skillful, or already quite familiar with your subject, you had better treat the two steps as separate.

What is important here is to recognize the difference between the first books that you read in the course of syntopical reading, and those that you come to after you have read many others on the subject. In the case of the later books, you probably already have a fairly clear idea of your problem, and in that case the two steps can coalesce. But at the beginning, they should be kept rigorously separated.

Above all, remember that you task is not so much to achieve an overall understanding of the particular book before you as to find out how it can be useful to you in a connection that may be very far from the author’s own purpose in writing it. That does not matter at this stage of the proceedings. The author can help you to solve your own problem without having intended to.

Because this is so, you must go about the business of coming to terms with your authors in a somewhat different way than before.

STEP 2 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: BRINGING THE AUTHORS TO TERMS. In interpretive reading (the second stage of analytical reading) the first rule requires you to come to terms with the author, which means identifying his key words and discovering how he uses them. But now you are faced with a number of different authors, and it is unlikely that they will have all used the same words, or even the same terms. Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.

This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really comes down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his. All of our normal reading habits are opposed to this.

Not only must we resolutely refuse to accept the terminology of any one author; we must also be willing to face the possibility that no author’s terminology will be useful to us. In other words, we must accept the fact that coincidence of terminology between us and any of the authors on our list is merely accidental.

Syntopical reading, in short, is to a large extent an exercise in translation. … We impose a common terminology on a number of authors who, whatever natural language they many have shared in common, may not have been specifically concerned with the problem we are trying to solve, and therefore may not have created the ideal terminology for dealing with it.

This means that as we proceed on our project of syntopical reading we must begin to build up a set of terms that first, helps us to understand all of our authors, not just one or a few of them, and second, helps us to solve our problem. That insight leads to the third step.

STEP 3 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: GETTING THE QUESTIONS CLEAR. The second rule of interpretive reading requires us to find the authors key sentences, and from them to develop an understanding of his propositions. Propositions are made up of terms, and of course we must do a similar job on the works we are reading syntopically. But since we ourselves are establishing the terminology in this case, we are faced with the task of establishing a set of neutral propositions as well. The best way to do this is to frame a set of questions that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors gives answers.

This, too, is difficult. The questions must be stated in such a way and in such an order that they help us to solve the problem we started with, but they also must be framed in such a way that all or most of our authors can be interpreted as giving answers to them.

Sometimes, indeed, we have to accept the fact that an author gives no answer to one or more of our questions. In that case, we must record him as silent or indeterminate on the question. … we also cannot depend entirely on their explicit statements about the problem. If we could depend on any one of them in that way, we probably would have no problem to solve.

We have said that the questions must be put in an order that is helpful to us in our investigation. The order depends on the subject, of course, but some general direction can be suggested. The first questions usually have to do with the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating. If an author says that the phenomenon exists or that the idea has a certain character, then we may ask further questions of his book. These may have to do with how the phenomenon is known or how the idea manifests itself. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers to the previous questions.

We should not expect that all of our authors will answer our questions in the same way. If they did, we would once again have no problem to solve; it would have been solved by consensus. Since the authors will differ, we are faced with having to take the next step in syntopical reading.

STEP 4 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: DEFINING THE ISSUES. If a question is clear, and if we can be reasonably certain that authors answer it in different ways – perhaps pro and con – then an issue has been defined. It is the issue between the authors who answer the question in one way, and those who answer it in one or another opposing way. … The opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views.

An issue is truly joined when two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in the contrary or contradictory ways. But this does not happen as often as one might wish. Usually, differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject. The task of the syntopical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be. Sometimes this forces him to frame the question in a way that is not explicitly employed by any author.

There may be many issues involved in the discussion of the problem we are dealing with, but it is likely that they will fall into groups. Questions about the character of the idea under considerations, for example, may generate a number of issues that are connected. A number of issues revolving around a closely connected set of questions may be termed the controversy about that aspect of the subject. Such a controversy may be very complicated, and it is the task of the syntopical reader to sort it out and arrange it in an orderly and perspicuous fashion, even if no author has managed to do that. This sorting and arranging of the controversies, as well as of the constituent issues, brings us to the final step in syntopical reading.

STEP 5 IN SYNTOPICAL READING: ANALYZING THE DISCUSSION. So far we have found the relevant passages in the works examined, created a neutral terminology that applies to all or most of the authors examined, framed and ordered a set of questions that most of them can be interpreted as answering, and defined and arranged the issues produced by differing answers to the questions. What then remains to be done?

The first four steps correspond to the first two groups of rules for analytical reading. Those rules, when followed and applied to any book, allowed us to answer the questions, What does it say? And How does it say it? In our syntopical reading project, we are similarly able at this point to answer the same questions about the discussion concerning our problem. In the case of the analytical reading of a single work, two further questions remained to be answered, namely, Is it true? And What of it? In the case of syntopical reading, we are now prepared to address ourselves to similar questions about the discussion.

We would probably be presumptuous to expect that the truth could be found in any one set of answers to the questions. Rather, it is to be found, if at all, in the conflict of opposing answers, many if not all of which may have persuasive evidence and convincing reasons to support them.

The truth, then, insofar as it can be found – the solution to the problem, insofar as that is available to us – consists rather in the ordered discussion itself than in any set of propositions or assertions about it. Thus, in order to present this truth to our minds – and to the minds of others – we have to do more than merely ask and answer the questions. We have to ask them in a certain order, and be able to defend that order; we must show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why; and we must be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers. Only when we have done all of this can we claim to have analyzed the discussion of our problem. And only then can we claim to have understood it.

Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 1 of 4)

PART FOUR: The Ultimate Goals of Reading


So far we have not said anything specific about how to read two or more books on the same subject. … Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement. The second requirement is a great deal harder to satisfy than the first.

The difficulty becomes evident as soon as we examine the phrase “two or more books on the same subject.” What do we mean by “same subject”? Perhaps this is clear enough when the subject is a single historical period or event, but in hardly any other sphere is there much clarity to be found. Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are both novels about a great war – but there, of the most part, the resemblance stops. Stendal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is “about” the same conflict – that is, the Napoleonic Wars – that Tolstoy’s novel is “about.” But of course neither is about the war, or indeed about war in general, as such.

You could have anticipated that this situation would obtain in the case of fiction. It is inherent in the fact that the novelist does not communicate in the same way that n expository writer does. But the situation obtains in the case of expository works, as well.

Suppose, for example, that you are interested in reading about the idea of love. Since the literature of lave is vast, you would have relatively little difficulty in creating a bibliography of books to read. Suppose that you have done that, by asking advisors, by searching through the card catalogue of a good library, and by examining the bibliography in a good scholarly treatise on the subject. And suppose in addition that you have confined yourself to expository works, despite the undoubted interest of novelists and poets on the subject. (We will explain why it would be advisable to do this later) You now begin to examine the books in your bibliography. What do you find?

Even a cursory perusal reveals a very great range of reference. There is hardly a single human action that has not been called – in one way or another – an act of love. … Confronted with this enormous range of reference, how are we to state what the subject is that we are investigating? Can we even be sure that there is a single subject?

A curious paradox is involved in any project of syntopical reading. Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it. In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works before you could decide what you were reading about. And when you had done that, you might have to concluded that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.


We have stated more than once that the levels of reading are cumulative, that a higher level includes all of those that precede or like below it. It is now time to explain what that means in the case of syntopical reading.

You will recall that in explaining the relationship between inspectional reading and analytical reading, we pointed out that the two steps in inspectional reading – first, skimming; and second, superficial reading – anticipated the first two steps in analytical reading. Skimming helps to prepare you for the first step of analytical reading, in the course of which you identify the subject matter of whatever you are reading, state what kind of book it is, and outline its structure. Superficial reading, while it is also helpful in that first step of analytical reading, is primarily a preparation for the second step, when you are called upon to interpret a books’ contents by coming to terms with the author, stating his propositions, and following his arguments.

In a somewhat analogous fashion, both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as anticipations or preparations for syntopical reading. It is here, in fact, that inspectional reading comes into its own as a major tool or instrument for the reader.

Let us suppose once more that you have a bibliography of a hundred or so titles, all of which appear to be on the subject of love. … But to read a hundred books analytically might well take you ten years. … Some short cut is obviously necessary, in the face of the paradox we have mentioned concerning syntopical reading.

That short cut is provided by your skill in inspectional reading. The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. Inspectional reading will not acquaint you with all of the intricacies of the subject matter, or with all of the insights that your authors can provide, but it will perform two essential functions. First, it will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. And second, it will allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size.

The skillful inspectional reader does more than classify a book in his mental card catalogue, and achieve a superficial knowledge of its contents. He also discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says something important about his subject or not. He may not yet know what that something is precisely – that discovery will probably have to wait for another reading. But he has learned one of two things. Either the book is one to which he must return for light, or it is one that, no matter how enjoyable or informative, contains no enlightenment and therefore does not have to be read again.

There is a reason why this advice is often unheeded. … Thinking they can collapse these two steps into one, they end up reading everything at the same rate, which may be either too fast or too slow for a particular work, but in any event is wrong for most of the books they read.

Once you have identified, by inspection, the books that are relevant to your subject matter, you can then proceed to read them syntopically. Note that in the last sentence we did say “proceed to read them analytically,” as you might have expected. In a sense, of course, you do have to read each of the individual works that, together, constitute the literature of your subject, with those skills that you acquired by applying the rules of analytical reading. But it must never be forgotten that the art of analytical reading applies to the reading of a single book, when understanding of that book is the aim in view. As we will see, the aim in syntopical reading is quite different

Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 2 of 2)


Paradoxically, the very factors we have discussed, the factors which make social science seem easy to read, also make it difficult to read. Consider the last factor mentioned, for instance – the commitment that you as a reader are likely to have to some view of the matter your author is considering. Many readers fear that it would be disloyal to their commitment to stand apart and impersonally question what they are reading. Yet this is necessary whenever you read analytically. Such a stance is implied by the rules of reading, at least by the rules of structural outlining and interpretation. If you are going to answer the first two questions that should be asked of anything you read, you must, as it were, check your opinions at the door. You cannot understand a book if you refuse to hear what it is saying.

The very familiarity of the terms and propositions in social science writing is also an obstacle to understanding. Many social scientists recognize this themselves. They object vigorously to the use of more or less technical terms and concepts in popular journalism and other writings. An example of such a concept is that of the Gross National Product (GNP). In serous economic writing, the concept is employed in a relatively limited sense. But many reporters and columnists, some social scientists say, make the concept do too much work. They use it too widely, without really understanding what it means. Obviously, if the writer of something you are reading is confused about his use of a key term, you, as reader, must be so, too.

Another is that stipulation of usage in the social or behavioral sciences is harder to do. It is one thing to define a circle or an isosceles triangle; it is quite another to define an economic depression or mental health. Even if a social scientist attempts to define such terms, his readers are inclined to question his usage. As a result, the social scientist must continue to struggle with his own terms throughout his work – and his struggle creates problems for his reader.

The most important source of difficulty in reading social science derives from the fact that this field of literature is a mixed, rather than a pure, kind of expository writing. We have seen how history is a mixture of fiction and science, and how we must read it with that in mind. … The situation in social science is quite different. Much social science is a mixture of science, philosophy, and history, often with some fiction thrown in for good measure.

If social science were always the same kind of mixture, we could become familiar with it as we have with history. But this is far from the case. The mixture itself shifts from book to book, and the reader is confronted with the task of identifying the various strands that go to make up what he is reading. These strands may change in the course of a single book as well as in different books. It is no easy job to separate them out.

You will recall that the first step the analytical reader has to take is to answer the question, What kind of book is this? In the case of fiction, that question is relatively easy to answer. In the case of science and philosophy, it is also relatively easy; and even if history is mixed form, at least the reader ordinarily knows that he is reading history. But the various strands that go to make up social science – sometimes interwoven in this pattern, sometimes in that, sometimes in still another – make the question very hard to answer when we are reading a work in the fields involved. The problem, in fact, precisely as difficult as the problem of defining social science. 

Nevertheless, the analytical reader must somehow manage to answer the question. It is not only his first task, but also his most important. If he is able to say what strands go to make up the book he is reading, he will have moved a good way toward understanding it.

Outlining a work in social science poses no special problems, but coming to terms with the author, as we have already suggested, may be extremely difficult, owing to the relative inability of the author to stipulate his usage. Nevertheless, some common understanding of the key terms is usually possible. From terms we move to propositions and arguments, and her again there is no special problem if the book is a good one. But the last question, What of it?, requires considerable restraint on the part of the reader. It is here that the situation we described earlier may occur – namely, the situation in which the reader says, “I cannot fault the author’s conclusions, but I nevertheless disagree with them.” This comes about, of course, because of the prejudgments that the reader is likely to have concerning the author’s approach and his conclusions.


More than once in the course of this chapter we have employed the phrase “social science literature” instead of “social science book.” The reason is that it is customary in social science to read several books about a subject rather than one book for its own sake. … when reading social science, we often have our eye primarily on a particular matter or problem, rather than on a particular author or book. Typically, there is no single, authoritative work on any of these subjects, and we must therefore read several.

The rules of analytical reading are not in themselves applicable to the reading of several works on the same subject. They apply to each of the works that is read, of course, and if you want to read any of them well you have to observe them. But new rules of reading are required as we pass from the third level of reading (analytical reading), to the fourth (syntopical reading). We are now prepared to tackle that fourth level, having come to see, because of this characteristic of social science, the need for it.

Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 1 of 2)


The concepts and terminology of the social sciences pervade almost everything we read today. … These concepts and this terminology are also reflected in the vast number of current books and articles that may be grouped together under the heading of social criticism. … the literature of social science is not confined to non-fiction. There is also a large and important category of contemporary writing that might be termed social-science fiction. Here the aim is to create artificial models of society.

Furthermore, there is hardly any social, economic, or political problem that has not been tackled by specialists in these fields. … Far from the least important factor in the growing pervasiveness of the social sciences is their introduction at the high school level and in the junior and community colleges.


We have been talking of social science as if it were a single entity. That is hardly the case.

Which, in fact, are the social sciences? One way to answer the question is to see what departments and disciplines universities group under this name. Social science divisions usually include departments of anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology. Why do they not ordinarily include as well schools of law, education, business, social service, and public administration, all of which draw on the concepts and methods of the social sciences for their development? The reason commonly given for the separation of these schools from the social science division is that the main purpose of such schools is to train for professional work outside of the university, while the previously mentioned departments are more exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of systematic knowledge of human society, an activity that usually goes on within the university.

What about psychology? Those social scientists who interpret their field strictly tend to exclude psychology on the grounds that it concerns itself with individual and personal characteristics, while the social sciences proper focus on cultural, institutional, and environmental factors. Those who are less strict … hold that psychology … should be regarded as a social science on the grounds of the inseparability of the individual from his social environment.

What of the behavioral sciences? … As originally used, the term behavioral science included sociology and anthropology and the behavioral aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychology and psychiatry, and political science. The accent on behavior served to emphasize observable, measurable behavior capable of being systematically investigated and of producing verifiable findings. Recently, the term behavioral sciences has come to be used almost as a synonym of the term social sciences, but many purists object to this usage.

Finally, what about history? It is acknowledged that the social sciences draw on the study of history for data and for exemplifications of their generalizations. However, … it is not a science in the sense that of itself it yields systematic knowledge of patterns or laws of behavior and development.

Is it possible, then, to define what we mean by social science? We think so, at least for the purposes of this chapter. Such fields as anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology constitute a kind of central core of social science, which almost all social scientists would include in any definition. In addition, we think it would be conceded by most social scientists that much, though not all, of the literature of such fields as law, education, and public administration, and some of the literature of such fields as business and social service, together with a considerable portion of psychological literature, falls within the confines of a reasonable definition. We will assume that such a definition, although admittedly imprecise, is clear to you in what follows.


A great deal of social science writing seems like the easiest possible material to read. The data are often drawn from experiences familiar to the reader – in this respect, social science is like poetry or philosophy – and the style of exposition is usually narrative, already familiar to the reader through his reading of fiction and history.

In addition, we have all become familiar with the jargon of social science and use it often. Such terms … tend to appear in almost every conversation and in almost everything we read.

Consider the word “society” itself. What a chameleon-like word it is, what a host of adjectives can be placed in front of it, while throughout it continues to convey the broad notion of people living together rather than in isolation. … “Social,” as an adjective, is also a word of many and familiar meanings.

The jargon and metaphors of much social science writing together with the deep feeling that often imbues it, make for deceptively easy reading. The references are to matters that are readily familiar to the reader; indeed, he reads or hears about them almost daily. Furthermore, his attitudes and feelings regarding them are usually firmly developed. Philosophy, too, deals with the world as we commonly know it, but we are not ordinarily “committed” on philosophical questions. But on matters with which social science deals, we are likely to have strong opinions.

Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 4 of 4)


A good theoretical work in philosophy is as free from oratory and propaganda as a good scientific treatise. … There is utility, however, in reading the works of other great philosophers who have dealt with the same problems as your author. The philosophers have carried on a long conversation with each other in the history of thought. You had better listen in on it before you make up your mind about what any of them says.

The fact that philosophers disagree should not trouble you, for two reasons. First, the fact of disagreement, if it is persistent, may point to a great unsolved and, perhaps, insoluble problem. … Second, the disagreements of others are relatively unimportant. Your responsibility is only to make up your own mind.

It is, indeed, the most distinctive mark of philosophical questions that everyone must answer them for himself. … And your answers must be solidly grounded, with arguments to back them up.


There are two kinds of theology, natural theology and dogmatic theology. Natural theology is a branch of philosophy; it is the last chapter, as it were, in metaphysics. If you ask, for example, wither causation is an endless process, whether everything is caused, you may find yourself, if you answer in the affirmative, involved in an infinite regress. Therefore you may have to posit some originating cause that is not itself caused. … you would have arrived at the conception by the unaided effort – the natural working – of your mind.

Dogmatic theology differs from philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. … If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician.

Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of the two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. Asa result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that, because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based on them, the reasoning that they support and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way.


There is one very interesting kind of book, on kind of reading, that has not yet been discussed. We use the term “canonical” to refer to such books; in an older tradition we might have called them “sacred” or “holy,” but those words no longer apply to all such works, though they still apply to some of them.

A prime example is the Holy Bible, when it is read not as literature but instead as the reveled Word of God. For orthodox Marxists, however, the works of Marx must be read in much the same way as the Bible must be read by orthodox Jews or Christians. And Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book has an equally canonical character for a “faithful” Chinese Communist.

The notion of a canonical book can be extended beyond these obvious examples. Consider any institution – a church, a political party, a society – that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to tach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. The do not – even cannot – question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the “sacred” text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there.

The characteristics of this kind of reading are perhaps summed up in the word “orthodox,” which is almost always applicable. The word comes from two Greek roots, meaning “right opinion.” These are books for which there is one and only one right reading; any other reading or interpretation is fraught with peril, from the loss of an “A” to the damnation of one’s soul. This characteristic carries with it an obligation. The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of “true.” If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or a rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books.

Here, in fact, we must stop. The problem of reading the Holy Book – if you have faith that it is the Word of God – is the most difficult problem in the whole field of reading. There have been more books written about how to read Scripture than about all other aspects of the art of reading together. The Word of God is obviously the most difficult writing men can read; but it is also, if you believe it is the Word of God, the most important to read. The effort of the faithful has been duly proportionate to the difficulty of the task. It would be true to say that, in the European tradition at least, the Bible is the book in more senses than one. It has been not only the most widely read, but also the most carefully read, book of all.

Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 3 of 4)


It is perhaps clear from the discussion so far that the most important thing to discover in reading any philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer. The questions may be stated explicitly, or they may be implicit to a certain extent. In either case, you must try to find out what they are.

How the author answers these questions will be deeply affected by his controlling principles. These may be stated, too, but that is not always the case. … the importance of discovering the hidden and unstated assumptions of an author … applies to works in philosophy with particular force.

It is difficult to give examples of such controlling principles. Any that we might proffer would probably be disputed by philosophers, and we do not here have space to defend our choices. Nevertheless, we could mention the controlling idea of Plato that conversation about philosophical subjects is perhaps the most important of all human activities. Now this idea is seldom explicitly stated in the dialogues, although Socrates may be saying it when, in the Apology, he asserts that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Plato mentions it in the Seventh Letter. The point is that Plato expresses this view in a number of other places, though not in so many words – for example, in the Protagoras, where the audience is shown as disapproving of Protagoras’ unwillingness to continue talking to Socrates. Another example is that of Cephalus, in Book I of the Republic, who happens to have other business to attend to and so departs. Plato seems to be saying here, though not explicitly, that it is a betrayal of man’s deepest nature to refuse to join, for whatever reason, in the search for truth. But, as we have noted, this is not ordinarily cited as one of Plato’s “ideas,” because it is seldom explicitly discussed in his works.

This is all we can say about finding the controlling principles in a philosophical book, because we are not sure that we can tell you how to discover them. Sometimes it takes years to do this, and many readings and rereadings. Nevertheless, it is the ideal goal of a good and thorough reading, and you should keep in mind that it is ultimately what you must try to do if you are to understand your author. Despite the difficulty of discovering these principles, however, we do not recommend that you take the shortcut of reading books about the philosophers, their lives and opinions. The discovery you come to on your own will be much more valuable than someone else’s ideas.

Once you have found an author’s controlling principles, you will want to decide whether he adheres to them throughout his work. … If a philosopher is inconsistent, you have to decide which of two sets of propositions he really means – the first principles, as he states them; or the conclusions, which do not in fact follow from the principles stated. Or you may decide to that neither is valid.

The philosophical problem is to explain, not to describe, as science does, the nature of things. Philosophy asks about more than the connections of phenomena. It seeks to penetrate to the ultimate causes and conditions that underlie them. Such problems are satisfactorily explored only when the answers to them are supported by clear arguments and analysis.

The major effort of the reader, therefore, must be with respect to the terms and initial propositions. Although the philosopher, like the scientist, has a technical terminology, the words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense.

The basic terms of philosophical discussions are, of course, abstract. But so are those of science. No general knowledge is expressible except in abstract terms.

Whenever you talk generally about anything, you are using abstractions. What you perceive through your sense is always concrete and particular. What you think with your mind is always abstract and general. To understand an “abstract word” is to have the idea it expresses. “Having an idea” is just another way of saying that you understand some general aspect of the things you experience concretely. You cannot see or touch or even imagine the general aspect thus referred to. If you could, there would be no difference between the senses and the mind.

Just as inductive arguments should be the reader’s main focus in the case of scientific books, so here, in the case of philosophy, you must pay closest attention to the philosopher’s principles. They may be either things he asks you to assume with him, or matters that he calls self-evident. There is no trouble about assumptions. Make them to see what follows, even if you yourself have contrary presuppositions. It is a good mental exercise to pretend that you believe something you really do not believe. And the clearer you are about your won prejudgments, the more likely you will be not to misjudge those made by others.

The thing to remember is that the experience from which they are drawn, as we have noted more than once, is, unlike the scientist’s special experience, the common experience of mankind. The philosopher does no work in laboratories, no research in the field. Hence to understand and test a philosopher’s leading principles you do not need the extrinsic aid of special experience, obtained by methodical investigation. He refers you to your own common sense and daily observation of the world in which you live.

In other words, the method according to which you should read a philosophical book is very similar to the method according to which it is written. A philosopher, faced with a problem, can do nothing but think about it. A reader, faced with a philosophical book, can do nothing but read it – which means, as we know, thinking about it. There are no other aids except the mind itself.

Thus you can see why we say that the rules of reading, as we have stated and explained them, apply more directly to the reading of philosophical books than to the reading of any other kind.


Chapter 18 – How To Read Philosophy (part 2 of 4)


For the sake of brevity in what follows, let us call questions about what is and happens in the world, or about what men ought to do or seek, “first-order questions.” We should recognize, then, that there are also “second-order questions” that can be asked: questions about our first-order knowledge, questions about the content of our thinking when we try to answer first-order questions, questions about the ways in which we express such thoughts in language.

The majority of professional philosophers at the present day no longer believe that first-order questions can be answered by philosophers. Most professional philosophers today devote their attention exclusively to second-order questions, very often to questions having to do with the language in which thought is expressed.

This makes modern philosophy very hard to read for non-philosophers – as difficult, indeed, as science for non-scientists. … However, there are philosophical books that you can read, and that we believe you should read. These books ask the kinds of questions that we have called first-order ones. It is not accidental that they were also written primarily for a lay audience rather than exclusively for other philosophers.

All of the great classical works in philosophy, from Plato onward, were written from this point of view. These books are accessible to the lay reader; you can succeed in reading them if you wish to. Everything that we have to say in this chapter is intended to help you do that.


It is important to understand what philosophical method consists in – at least insofar as philosophy is conceived as asking and trying to answer first-order questions. Suppose that you are a philosopher who is troubled by one of the childishly simple questions we have mentioned – the question, for instance, about the properties of everything that exists, … How do you proceed?

If your question were scientific, you would know that to answer it you would have to perform some kind of special research. … If your question were historical, you would know that you would also have to perform research, although a different kind. But there is no experiment that will tell you what all existing things have in common, precisely in respect to have existence. … all you can do is reflect upon the question. There is, in short, nothing to do but think.

You are not thinking in a total vacuum, of course. Philosophy, when it is good, is not “pure” speculation. … Ideas cannot be put together just anyway. There are stringent testes of the validity of answers to philosophical questions. But such tests are based on common experience alone – on the experience that you already have because you are a human being, not a philosopher. … What distinguishes [the greatest philosophers] is that they thought about it extremely well: they formulated the most penetrating questions that could be asked about it, and they undertook to develop carefully and clearly worked-out answers. By what means? Not by investigation. Not by having or trying to get more experience than the rest of us have. Rather, by thinking more profoundly about the experience than the rest of us have.


Although there is only one philosophical method, there are at least five styles of exposition that have been employed by the great philosophers of the Western tradition. The student or reader of philosophy should be able to distinguish between them and know the advantages and disadvantages of each.

  1. THE PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUE: The first philosophical style of exposition, first in time if not in effectiveness, is the one adopted by Plato in his Dialogues. The style is conversational, even colloquial; a number of men discuss a subject with Socrates (or, in the later dialogues, with a speaker known as The Athenian Stranger); often, after a certain amount of fumbling, Socrates embarks on a series of questions and comments that help to elucidate the subject. In the hands of a master, like Plato, this style is heuristic, that is, it allows the reader, indeed leads him, to discover things for himself. When the style is enriched by the high drama – some would say the high comedy – of the story of Socrates, it becomes enormously powerful.
  2. THE PHILOSOPHICAL TREATISE OR ESSAY: Aristotle was Plato’s best pupil; he studied under him for twenty years. … The subjects covered by Aristotle in his treatises, and the various styles adopted by him in presenting his findings, also helped to establish the branches and approaches of philosophy in the succeeding centuries. … Finally, there are the major treatises, some of which, like the Physics and Metaphysics, or the Ethics, Politics, and Poetics, are purely philosophical works, theoretical or normative; some of which, like the book On the Soul, are mixtures of philosophical theory and early scientific investigation; and some of which, like the biological treatises, are mainly scientific works in the field of natural history.

Immanuel Kant, although he was probably more influenced by Plato in a philosophical sense, adopted Aristotle’s style of exposition. His treatises are finished works of art, unlike Aristotle’s in this respect. They state the main problem first, go through the subject matter in a thorough and businesslike way, and treat special problems by the way or at the last. The clarity of both Kant and Aristotle may be said to consist in the order that they impose on the subject. We see a philosophical beginning, middle, and end. We also, particularly in the case of Aristotle, are provided with accounts of the views and objections of others, both philosophers and ordinary men. Thus, in one sense the style of the treatise is similar to the style of the dialogue. But the element of drama is missing from the Kantian or Aristotelean treatise; a philosophical view is developed through straightforward exposition rather than through the conflict of positions and opinions, as in Plato.

  1. THE MEETING OF OBJECTIONS: The philosophical style developed in the Middle Ages and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has likenesses to both of those already discussed. Plato, we have pointed out, raises most of the persistent philosophical problems; and Socrates, as we might have observed, asks in the course of the dialogues the kind of simple but profound questions that children ask. And Aristotle, as we have also pointed out, recognizes the objections of other philosophers and replies to them.

Aquinas’ style is a combination of question-raising and objection-meeting. The Summa is divided into parts, treatises, questions, and articles. The form of all the articles is the same. A question is posed; the opposite (wrong) answer to it is given; arguments are educed in support of that wrong answer; these are countered first by an authoritative text (often a quotation from Scripture); and finally, Aquinas introduces his own answer or solution with the words “I answer that.” Having given his own view of the matter, he then replies to each of the arguments for the wrong answer. 

The neatness and order of this style are appealing to men with orderly minds, but that is not the most important feature of the Thomistic way of philosophizing. Rather, it is Aquinas’ explicit recognition of conflicts, his reporting of different views, and his attempt to meet all possible objections to his own solutions.  … the civilization of the Middle Ages was essentially oral, partly because books were few and hard to come by. A proposition was not accepted as true unless it could meet the test of open discussion’ the philosopher was not a solitary thinker, but instead faced his opponents in the intellectual market place (as Socrates might have said). Thus, the Summa Theologica is imbued with the spirit of debate and discussion.

  1. THE SYSTEMIZATION OF PHILOSOPHY: In the seventeenth century, a fourth style of philosophical exposition was developed by two notable philosophers, Descartes and Spinoza. Fascinated by the promised success of mathematics in organizing man’s knowledge of nature, they attempted to organize philosophy itself in a way akin to the organization of mathematics.

Probably there are no absolute rules of rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether it is possible to write a satisfactory philosophical work in mathematical form, as Spinoza tried to do, or a satisfactory scientific work in dialogue form, as Galileo tried to do. The fact is that both of these men failed to some extent to communicate what they wished to communicate, and it seems likely that the form they chose was a major reason for the failure.

  1. THE APHORISTIC STYLE: There is one other style of philosophical exposition that deserves mention, although it is probably not as important as the other four. This is the aphoristic style adopted by Nietzsche in such works as Thus Spake Zarathustra and by certain modern French philosophers.

The great advantage of the aphoristic form in philosophy is that it is heuristic; the reader has the impression that more is being said than is actually said, for he does much f the work of thinking – of making connections between statements and of constructing arguments for positions – himself. At the same time, however, this is the great disadvantage of the style, which is really not expositional at all. The author is like a hit-and-run driver; he touches on a subject, he suggests a truth or insight about it, and then runs off to another subject without properly defending what he has said. Thus, although the aphoristic style is enjoyable for those who are poetically included, it is irritating for serious philosophers who would rather try to follow and criticize an author’s line of thought.

As far as we know, there is no other important style of philosophical exposition that has been employed in our Western tradition. … This means that all of the great philosophers have employed one or the other of these five styles. … The treatise or essay is probably the most common form, both in the past and the present. … Dialogues are notoriously hard to write, and the geometrical style is enormously difficult both to write and to read. The aphoristic style is highly unsatisfactory from a philosophical point of view. The Thomistic style has not been used very much in recent times. Perhaps it would not be acceptable to modern readers, but that seems a shame, considering all its advantages.